At the end of June, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Board of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This decision caused a lot of fervor and uproar in the reading community.
Let’s just face, for many of us Wilder’s books hold a special place in our hearts. But Wilder was not her books and her books were not her. In my last post, I spoke of the problematic displays of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie. But since the prize wasn’t name the Little House on the Prairie Award, I wanted to know more about Laura Ingalls Wilder herself. I have Pioneer Girl sitting on my bookshelf. I also had the Pulitzer Prize Winner Prairie Fires: The American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder sitting next to it. Pioneer Girl is a little problematic because it was written by Laura herself. So I dug into Prairie Fires.
Caroline Fraser deserved the Pulitzer she was awarded for this book. It is heavily researched and paints an interesting picture of Wilder. The book is long and dense and continues through Rose Wilder Lane’s death and even touches on the television series—a series that taught me early on anything on screen was never as good as the book. Michael Landon was no Charles Ingalls. But then again, that might be a good thing.
The author depicts life on prairie as grueling. The Ingalls family struggled to put food on the table and make ends meet. At one point in his life, Charles Ingalls packed up Caroline and the girls and fled Burr Oak, Iowa under the cover of darkness in order to avoid paying his debts. Debts he couldn’t settle.
Additionally, the Dakota Territory became as much a player in the book as any person mentioned. The harsh weather and farming conditions brought many families, the Ingalls and the Wilders to name two, to their knees. Laura and Almanzo left the Dakotas when she was in her twenties. She and Almanzo thought the Ozarks would provide them a better life. Ultimately, what provided them a better life was Laura’s writing.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was opinionated, judgmental, and determined to survive. She looked down on anyone, including her sisters, who lived on “government handouts.” She was staunchly against Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Hobos marked the trees around the Wilder farm with signs that stated they wouldn’t get a handout, there were dogs, and the owners were mean. She was inextricably tied to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Rose was anti-Semitic, racist, and just a downright disagreeable person. Rose revised and edited much of Laura’s work before it went to the publisher. Which left me questioning how much of the books we loved were really written by Laura. While the stories were based in truth, they were also highly fictionalized. In fact, stories that make up Little House in the Big Woods happened after Charles Ingalls moved his family onto Osage land in Kansas, lived there for a year, and then returned to Wisconsin. So the series begins out of the chronological order of Laura’s actual life.
The ALA makes a cogent and thoughtful argument for changing the award, noting “her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities” (ALA, ALSC respond to Wilder Medal name change). After reading Little House on the Prairie,I completely agree with this statement.
However, after reading Prairie Fires, I don’t believe that we should celebrate an author who may not have fully authored all of her work. As I’m learning, writers never write in isolation, but in many cases it’s hard to tell were Laura’s work ends and Rose’s begins. So is the award really honoring “an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature”? It’s hard to say. For that reason alone, the award name should be changed.
Until next time…See YA